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Marin’s Salmon, the Drought, and Us

| February 21, 2014
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It’s natural for us humans to think of the current California drought as a human crisis. Yes, it affects all 38 million of us who have staked a claim on this desirable real estate. And yes, people across the United States and beyond who consume our state’s bounty of farm products, from almonds to salad greens, could feel the effects, too, as our long, unpitying stretch of dry weather squeezes water supplies.

But if you think we have it bad, consider for a moment the coho salmon who came back to our coast to spawn last fall. That was the subject of a piece we did last week for “KQED Newsroom” — see the video above — and it’s a story that combines the potentially lethal reality of the drought with the story of a species that by its very nature must fight hard to survive.

Coho salmon waited for weeks, then months, for a signal that was alarmingly slow in coming.

Coho, or Oncorhynchus kisutch, is listed as endangered along a 300-mile stretch of coast from Punta Gorda, in southern Humboldt County, down to Santa Cruz. In the argot of the federal Endangered Species Act, that status means these “Central California coast” coho are at risk of extinction. Here’s what that looks like in hard numbers: Researchers say that just half a century ago, 56,000 adult coho spawned along that stretch of coast. That number fell to 18,000 in the 1980s, to 6,000 in the early ’90s, and to just 500 in 2009. The population has bounced back some since that low point, and there might have been several thousand fish coming back to the coast last fall to spawn.

These fish, like most salmonids, are anadromous, meaning they’re born in fresh water, live their adult lives at sea, then return to fresh water to spawn. Not only do spawning fish need a place to lay eggs, but their young need a wild refuge where they can grow and mature for more than a year before heading out to salt water. Coho here face extinction because the shady, cool, clean, unimpaired waters they need have been disappearing, too. Streams have been dammed, channeled and diverted, forests on the banks have been clear cut, watersheds have been intensively developed, and waterways have been polluted, filled with sediment, and polluted again.

A local stronghold

But an intensive effort to help the fish recover is under way, and coho have a few strongholds left on this part of the coast. One of the places they’ve managed to hang on is at the edge of the crowded, traffic-choked Bay Area. Several hundred adult salmon swim home to the Lagunitas watershed in western Marin County every year. The watershed includes Lagunitas Creek, which flows down the northwestern flank of Mount Tamalpais and out to Tomales Bay, and many tributaries, the biggest of which is San Geronimo Creek.

Coho gather near the mouths of their home streams in the fall. In some places, sandbars block the fish from ascending creeks. In others, like Lagunitas Creek, there’s nothing physical to stop them from making their upstream run.

But, facing sandbars or not, the coho wait for a signal. The first big rain of the season will trigger a surge of water down rivers and streams, breaking through the bars and telling fish it’s time to get going.

A female coho salmon, dead after spawning on Lagunitas Creek. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

A female coho salmon, dead after spawning on Lagunitas Creek. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

This season, of course, the signal did not come. Some early rains on the north coast were enough to allow a few coho to enter streams and spawn. But the meager, infrequent rains that fell here did nothing to coax fish toward their spawning grounds.

For those rooting for salmon to beat the odds, or at least for me, it was a dreadful, depressing season. The biologists who follow the ups and downs of the Lagunitas salmon as part of trying to help them recover had reason to expect a large number of coho to surge into the watershed this year. But with day after relentless day of dry, sunny weather during the peak spawning period, from mid-December to mid-January, only a handful of fish ventured upstream, and those few couldn’t get close to some of the prime nesting areas. By the beginning of February, even biologists who have watched Lagunitas Creek for years were figuring it was too late to see a spawning run this year — any fish that had been waiting in Tomales Bay had probably died or succumbed to predators, like seals. To make matters worse, the very low flows in the watershed meant that many fish born last year and waiting to migrate to the Pacific this spring might not have a way to get out to sea.

A deluge, and a late spawning run

And then we got our storm, and the coho got their cue.

The week before last, a deluge fell on West Marin. And with the sudden flush of water from Lagunitas Creek, as many as 200 coho (along with their threatened cousins, steelhead trout) ran up streams throughout the Lagunitas watershed. When we went out to see for ourselves what was up with the salmon, Marin Municipal Water District biologist Gregory Andrew said he’d never seen such a late spawning run in his 17 years monitoring Lagunitas Creek.

I went back out to the creek a couple days later with another coho salmon enthusiast in my household. Somehow, I couldn’t quite believe the fish would still be there. Lots of people were coming to see them — families with young kids, adults with elderly parents, folks from all over the Bay Area, it seemed.

What drew them, exactly? Well, I was determined to be off the clock that second day I went out to the creek, so while I did record a few people spontaneously reacting to what they were seeing — take a listen to the short audio snippet below — I didn’t canvass the crowd. But let me make an educated guess or two about what attracts so many people to these fish.

A heroic journey and an unseverable connection

We tend to anthropomorphize this world we live in, so on one level, I think we see salmon in all their wild forms as heroic, capable of amazing physical feats on their upstream journey to spawn, an adventure that’s only complete when the fish die and surrender their bodies to nourish the streams and forests where they were born.

On a deeper level, we tend to stand in awe when we glimpse the complexity of nature’s workings. The return of the salmon — the instincts and physical cues that bring them back to their natal streams, the physical changes they undergo as they return, how particular and precise they are about choosing their nesting sites — all provide plenty of mystery for us to ponder.

On the deepest level of all, I think many of us sense an unseverable connection between ourselves, these endangered fish and other threatened plants and animals. We’re excited when we first catch sight of a pair of coho facing into the current, getting ready to spawn. Contemplating that scene, I think we also sense the salmon and their plight are telling us something about our own fate and about the world we’re bequeathing our children.

That’s the long view. In the short term, I’d say we need more rain.

Reporting on California land policy, planning and conservation is supported by a grant from the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation.

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About the Author ()

Dan Brekke has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.
  • CatsCradle70

    Great post! Thanks for spreading the word that we share our watersheds with these amazing species. If we allow coho to disappear we’ll lose something truly inspiring.